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Do Disasters Come In Three?

In the fall of 1989, the earth unleashed its fury. September: Hurricane Hugo carved a massive trail of destruction from the Caribbean to South Carolina. At least 80 people died as the 150-mile-per-hour winds pummeled everything in their path.

October:

A magnitude 7.1 earthquake rocked buildings, bridges, and highways in Northern California, killing more than 60 people. The real "big one" could strike at any time.

November:

Tornadoes swept across the eastern United States, touching down with random, deadly force. The twisters killed at least 14 people from Huntsville, Alabama, and schoolchildren outside Newburgh, New York.

Why did Mother Nature pick 1989 to deliver such devastating blows? The answer is, she didn't. "We've had natural disasters all along," says Marla Lacayo-Emery, a natural-hazards specialist at the National Research Council. Keep in mind that in 1988 a hurricane called Gilbert ravaged parts of Jamaica and northern Mexico, floods devastated Bangladesh, and thousands died in an earthquake in Soviet Armenia.

1989 may have been different only because the disasters hit within a short period of time, and in the United States. "Usually we're looking at it on the news happening someplace else. This time we're looking at it happening here," says Lacayo-Emery.

It's hard to imagine nature having such force in a country where, in so many ways, people have control. After all, we can use genetic engineering to manipulate the very code of life.

Still, says Susan Russell-Robinson, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, "as much as we can engineer nature, some forces are so powerful that we can't stop them." The best we can do, she says, is "reduce the impact of natural disasters," such as tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes, "by thinking about what could happen, and being prepared."

That's the idea behind the "Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction." This is a program designed to reduce the impact of natural disasters throughout the world. With support from the United Nations, countries will be encouraged to share information about how to plan for and cope with natural disasters.

"One of the most important things we plan to do," says Lacayo-Emery, who is helping to organize the program, "is make people aware of what they can do to protect themselves." For example, you can help your family put together a safety kit. Pack a suitcase with flashlights, a radio, fresh batteries, blankets, canned food and an opener, a first-aid-kit, fresh water for drinking, and some tools. Your kit may help you and your family survive a disaster until help arrives.

In addition, says Lacayo-Emery, the program will encourage governments to establish building codes, emergency response plans, and training programs to limit the destruction that natural hazards can cause. "The comparatively mild effects of the (Northern California) earthquake prove beautifully that the technology exists" to prevent vast destruction, she says.

The tragedies of recent disasters on the other hand, prove what happens when we don't use that technology: people suffer. When the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland, California, collapsed, people were killed in their cars. The freeway was not built to today's stricter earthquake-resistance standards.

And thousands died in Armenia because of "poor enforcement of building codes," says Walter Hays, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist. Without connections between the floors and columns of the buildings, he says, "the floors came down like a stack of cards, crushing everyone inside."

Individuals and governments are going to have to be farsighted, to "take the extra time and spend the extra money to build disaster safety into our lives," says Lacayo-Emery. While such programs can't hold back the winds or stop earthquakes, they can prevent these natural hazards from becoming disasters by saving people's lives and homes.

January 26, 1990.

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